A little more than five months ago, I got on a plane that took me to my new, albeit temporary home. In the months leading up to December, I’d done extensive research of the history of Korea, its culture and of course, its education system. Little did I know upon stepping onto that plane how much this country would teach me beyond anything I could find through a Google search.
My job is not easy. My job is not glamorous. Walking to work on a Monday morning is no different than it was in the United States. The only difference is that I once I get to work, no matter how tired I am, I begin my day with a group of seven 6-year-old children screaming my name and excited to see me. These tiny humans have brightened my days, cracked open my heart and strengthened my spirit in a way I cannot put into words.
I don’t have to worry about wooing a client over lunch or preparing for some sort of business call or marketing event while working at this job. Nor can I come into work and have a somewhat lazy, “I’ll put this off until tomorrow” kind of day, either (something I found myself doing all too often working a job I absolutely hated prior to this.) With that said, working with young children is the most rewarding, exhausting, frustrating — yet fun — job I’ve ever had.
The relationships I’ve formed with my students over these few short months is absolutely mind-blowing. Each day, every single one of them impresses me with their vastly different personalities, mannerisms and learning styles.
The Sewol tragedy took the world by storm in a similar manner to the missing Boeing 747 airplane. It was a sensational story drenched in confusion, sadness and absolute horror. However, as most arresting stories just like this one broadcast in Western countries (I’m mainly looking at you, USA. Remind me again – what and where is Syria?) tend to be forgotten about, it has stayed with many of us here in Korea. While I have my own reservations about the situation, I don’t think it is my place, nor appropriate to publicly detail.
What I believe is most important is knowing the fact that the safety of children — high school aged babies, if you will —was so easily mishandled is incredibly baffling. While I never had the pleasure of knowing any of the students at Danwon High School, I feel such a significant loss in my heart knowing this happened to so many young, promising children. I cannot imagine the grief the families, teachers and friends are feeling at this time. I also cannot imagine the additional pain and anger they will feel in years to come.
I was watching my morning kindergarten class play together in my academy’s “play gym” (think McDonald’s Play Place minus the terrifyingly filthy ball pit) and I started to tear up. As I watched them interact with one another, I tried to imagine who they are going to become as they get older — something I find myself pondering often.
As I held in my tears from falling down my cheeks, I thought about a news story I read earlier that week that resonated with me. The story detailed a 6-year-old boy named Kwon who immediately took responsibility for his 5-year-old sister by securing a life jacket on her person as the ferry began to sink. This little boy’s aunt told the media the last words he told his sister was that he was going to search for their parents.
While the boy and their parents have yet to be found, Kwon’s sister was found unharmed and placed in the care of their grandmother.
Sitting in that play area at 11:20 A.M. on that Tuesday afternoon, there was no doubt in my mind each of my little students would do just the same. Like most 6-year-old children, my students sometimes have a difficult time sharing and getting along with one another. In the same vein, as all child their age, they have hearts of gold and look out for one another. Watching them, I began to get teary-eyed again. One of my most sensitive students, a small boy named James, came screaming with joy down the slide moments later. He immediately noticed I didn’t have my usual smile on my face.
“Laura Teacher, ouch?” and he grabbed my hand.
This was his way of asking me in the [currently] minimal English he knows if I was feeling hurt. The gratitude I felt for him, these children, this life was so overwhelming that I almost began to tear up again. Instead, I smiled, and picked him up onto my hip, and shortly after said,
“Laura Teacher is….HULK!” and felt pure joy as I watched my students squeal with laughter as they played along with this silly little game we’ve created as a classroom. The gratitude I have for being able to hang with these kids as well as the rest of my additional 20+ students on a daily basis cannot be matched.
I stand with the rest of this country —not just as an expat but as a human being —in showing my support for this terrible tragedy. This is something that will certainly tarnish the developing global reputation of Korea, and affect the citizens forever. Nonetheless, I believe the most important focus should be for everyone to band together, think of those who are lost, and give love to those around us each day.